This guest post was written by a young Catholic man who asked that I publish it anonymously due to the personal nature of the subject. I was happy to do so as mental illness affects so many families, including mine.
There has been a significant growth of awareness about mental illness in recent years, and I am grateful for it. As a Christian who suffers from mental illness, I want my fellow believers who may be unfamiliar with it to know a few things.
What is a mental illness?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these.)” Mental illness is common. The American Psychiatric Association also say that in any given year, 19% of U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, and 4.1% of Americans have a serious mental illness.
How does it work?
I’m not a doctor, but I like to explain the foundation of mental illness and the need for treatment by comparing it to physical illness, something almost everyone can relate to.
When a person experiences a physical illness, it essentially means that their body isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. When a person has the flu, a very common physical illness, they have a viral infection of their respiratory tract. This infection causes symptoms, including fever, fatigue, and physical pain.
When a person experiences a mental illness, it means that their brain isn’t functioning the way it would when healthy. Mental illnesses often last for years or even a lifetime.
I want to address the most commonly referred to forms of mental illness: Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, more commonly known as OCD. These terms are often used to describe everyday experiences and emotions that are not necessarily mental illnesses, which leads to confusion.
Depression is a commonly used term, and feeling depressed does not necessarily mean a person experiences mental illness. It is ordinary for a person to feel depressed and sad when life is hard.
Major Depressive Disorder, a mental illness, can cause people to feel depressed and sad when things in life are good. It alters the brain, causing chemical and hormonal imbalances that affect a person in negative ways.
When people suffer from Depression, the mental illness, they may experience sadness, hopelessness, and excessive feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Physically, they may experience restlessness, fatigue, or sleep in excess or lack. If left untreated, or if treatment is ineffective, it can lead to suicidal thoughts and inclinations.
As with depression, anxiety is a commonly used term and a widely experienced emotion. Feeling anxious does not necessarily mean that a person experiences mental illness.
There are several types of what are called anxiety disorders. Among them are Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses; the brain’s functioning is altered.
When a person has an anxiety disorder, their anxieties, or worries, are often persistent and irrational. A person may fixate on a specific thought or happening nonstop for hours or an entire day. These fixations can be so severe that they hinder a person’s ability to function.
OCD is a term that is widely misused to describe someone who is a perfectionist or very detail-oriented. According to Mayo Clinic, OCD “features a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions).”
They also say that “Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts to try to ease your stress. Despite efforts to ignore or get rid of bothersome thoughts or urges, they keep coming back.”
Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes what is known as a vicious cycle where obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior beget only more obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Obsessions and compulsions can be physical, mental, or both. Individuals who suffer from OCD can experience obsessions such as repetitively washing hands, needing to re-check whether a door is locked, arranging physical items a certain way, or repeating specific thoughts or prayers for lengthy periods without respite.
How to and not to treat a Christian with mental illness
The Bible has a lot to say about worry and anxiety.
In Philippians 4:6, St. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In Matthew 6:34, Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 1 Peter 5:7 says about the Lord, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
These verses are easy to remember and share with others but may be of no solace to a person who experiences mental illness. Why is this?
When you suffer from mental illness, not worrying, not being anxious, and being happy can often be beyond your control, even with the help of medicine.
If I get provoked by criticism, a personal attack, or hearing bad news, I can literally think about such a thing for the rest of the day, making it take longer to go to sleep.
I know to my core that God loves me, but telling me not to worry, or to be joyful at times doesn’t help because it is simply something I’m often not able to control. Prominent Christian speakers have said things such as “there is no such thing as a sad Christian,” and “worry is practical atheism,” which I think are insensitive and untrue, especially when considering the experience of Christians with mental illness, and that those are common, natural emotions.
Never, ever, ever, criticize a person’s faith when they are struggling not to worry, or when they feel depressed and sad rather than joyful. I’m not less holy, less faithful, or less believing than anyone else if I don’t feel joyful or if I am overwhelmed by worry.
What should you do?
From my perspective, offering a listening ear, without telling people how to think, is the best thing a person can do to help. Suggestions may be welcome and helpful, but at times they may not be. Praying for them is essential and asking to pray with them when in-person can also be comforting.
Though miraculous healings occur, as with a physical illness, mental illnesses such as Depression and anxiety disorders are not problems that you can simply pray away: it requires treatment and stigma has no place in preventing someone from seeking it out.
If you know someone who shows signs of depression or an anxiety disorder, ask if they are seeing a counselor and taking medicine, and if they say no, encourage them to speak with their doctor and a licensed counselor. A psychiatrist can evaluate someone and determine if they have a mental illness, and then provide them with medication and refer them to a counselor. A counselor can provide practical ways that a person can cope with their thoughts and experiences, which when combined with medicine can make things much better.